The greatest day of my soccer life was and remains June 17, 2002. Dos a cero in the Round of 16 at the World Cup.
Rivalry wins are sweet beyond description. That one has stayed with me (and I'm certain, with the players on the field that day as well as many, many of my fellow US fans) more vividly than any of the thousands of soccer games I've watched in my 37 years.
I took joy not just from my team's win, but from the suffering of Mexico fans. Shutting them up was just ... I still can't find the words. It was amazing.
That's what Timbers fans feel like Thursday night after their 3-2 win over the Seattle Sounders (5-3 aggregate). There is nothing quite like a rivalry game – especially when you realize that the opponent has no answer for your best player.
Let's start there:
1. Get the ball to Nagbe and go with confidence
I think you can make arguments for Diego Chara, Will Johnson, Donovan Ricketts and the wonderful Diego Valeri as Portland's best player. Usually.
Tonight, though, it was Darlington Nagbe. He was almost flawless, and always available to turn whatever pressure Seattle was putting on into an overcommitment. The Sounders simply couldn't run at him with one man, because that would be a lost defender.
Watch him receive the ball in traffic, ride a challenge from Osvaldo Alonso, and play a simple possession pass:
Valeri's the one who elevates the Timbers to "damn, that was art" when things are going well. Nagbe has turned into the one who gets on the ball when things are going bad and gives the team their rhythm back.
It's become his defining skill, and it is simply sublime. In tonight's masterpiece, he completed 40 of 44 passes:
Every time a Seattle defender chased after Nagbe, it turned into an extended series of passes for the home team. He may not have gotten on the scoreboard, but he controlled the game in a way that allowed Valeri and Will Johnson to get up the pitch, and the strikers to stay high and occupy the Seattle center backs.
2. Attacking the weak link at left back
Marc Burch is a decent enough sub, but he was never built to handle multiple attackers coming at him in space and at pace in a game of this magnitude. Not without some severe help from his left central defender, or better tracking from his left left midfielder.
Watch how hung out to dry Burch is on this play, and how slow Seattle is as a group in how they understand where the danger is:
This is a team breakdown and some ruthless execution from Portland, but ultimately Burch could have stopped it if he'd just stuck with Valeri's run.
He didn't. He focused on the ball, and his team paid the price.
3. Individual mistakes destroy the Sounders
What is there to say about the night Djimi Traore had? There was his late reaction on the Valeri goal just above, and his late reaction on the Futty Danso clincher, and his absolutely inexplicable handball that opened the night's festivities:
Seattle will have a reckoning sometime in the next couple of days (or weeks, I guess), and they'll watch a lot of film. And they'll be pretty depressed, because these two months have been pretty depressing for them.
The conclusion they'll come to is that the central defense absolutely murdered them from September onward. While the teams around them – Portland, RSL and LA – all found answers of one degree or another over the course of the season, Seattle finished the year with questions and deep, abiding sadness.
Rivalry games, you know?
What next for Portland?
The matchup everybody wanted: Portland vs. RSL, a neutral's delight. These two teams have produced three of the most entertaining games of the year (as well as a well-played 0-0 draw of recent vintage) across all competitions, and there should be hope in all quarters that the best is yet to come.